Fariha Shaikh
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Spatial synchronicities
Settler emigration, the voyage out, and shipboard literary production
in Worlding the south

This chapter explores the spatialising methodologies of shipboard periodicals produced on three ships as they voyaged between Britain and Australia across the oceanic expanses of the southern hemisphere in the mid-nineteenth century: the Sobraon, the Somersetshire, and the True Briton. By the 1860s, newspapers produced on board the ship by passengers between Britain and the Antipodes were a regular affair: fair copies of newspapers were produced by hand and distributed around the ship, or, if the ship carried a printing press, newspapers were produced at sea. This chapter embeds maritime literary culture, and the production of shipboard periodicals, within some of the key ideological frameworks of settler colonial discourse. It argues that if the production of shipboard periodicals produced sociability at sea, then this sociability was also embedded in settler discourses of race and power.

This chapter explores the spatialising methodologies of shipboard periodicals produced on three ships as they voyaged between Britain and Australia across the oceanic expanses of the southern hemisphere in the mid-nineteenth century: the Sobraon, the Somersetshire, and the True Briton. By the 1860s, newspapers produced on board the ship by passengers between Britain and the Antipodes were a regular affair: fair copies of newspapers were produced by hand and distributed around the ship, or, if the ship carried a printing press, newspapers were produced at sea. A critical body of work within the fields of settler colonial studies and the blue humanities has slowly begun to develop around this genre, with attention being drawn to the pivotal role that they played in shaping settler colonial aspirations and the broader contours of maritime literary culture.1 Shipboard periodicals are an ephemeral and marginal genre, in that they were an almost ubiquitous presence on voyages and held an important function and value at the time of their production, but are often characterised as being without ‘enduring literary value’.2 In contradistinction to this view, this chapter embeds maritime literary culture and the production of shipboard periodicals firmly within some of the key ideological frameworks of settler colonial discourse. It argues that if the production of shipboard periodicals produced sociability at sea, then this sociability was also embedded in settler discourses of race and power.

Bringing the blue humanities into conversation with settler colonial studies through the lens of shipboard periodicals allows us to interrogate the ways in which the seemingly ephemeral genre of shipboard periodicals participated in creating ‘the persistent legacies of settler colonialism in the Global South’.3 In ‘The Ship, The Media, and the World’, Roland Wenzlhuemer argues that ‘[w]hen people, things, or ideas move, [they] create a connection – sometimes fragile, sometimes more stable – between their origin(s) and their destination’.4 Thinking of the ship not only as a floating piece of ‘home’ but also as a piece of travelling communication which carries with it a certain set of people and ideologies allows us to interrogate more fully the colonising work that it does and disperses. The ship journey, as David Armitage, Alison Bashford, and Sujit Sivasundaram astutely argue, is not just an ‘experiment in habitation’: when ‘it transfers materials, ideas, nature and people across locales’, it also raises questions of how ‘to create, distil or transform cultural norms’, and ‘how to proclaim and dramatize from a culture from the deck and “across the beach” to a newfoundland’.5 Shipboard periodicals are a distinct example of this ‘transfer’ of a ‘cultural norm’: produced quite literally on the move, they are shaped by the spatial, temporal, and material limitations of the voyage. As they move across the globe, they disseminate not only news of what happens on a particular voyage, but also the cultural form of the periodical.6

As Jude Piesse has argued, land-based periodicals in this period are marked by a mobile subjectivity: they circulate widely throughout the British Empire, and within a settler colonial context they ‘not only reflected mobility, but were actively involved in producing it’.7 Shipboard periodicals might be said to go one step further: not only do they reflect and actively produce mobility, they are also produced out of the conditions of being mobile. Written or printed on board the ship, many shipboard periodicals, including the ones discussed in this chapter, were reprinted and circulated after the voyage as souvenirs, or to encourage chain migration. The editors of the Dover Castle, for example, write that while they are ‘aware’ that the newspaper ‘will prove of but little interest to our fellow passengers’ as they are all ‘so well acquainted with it’, they hope that it will be ‘looked upon in quite a contrary light’ by ‘those who have never travelled round the world’.8 Ships travelling on return journeys to England often carried with them emigrants going back home to see their family and friends, who were able to contribute pieces offering advice on how and where to settle. As well as acting as a ‘record’ of ‘anything of interest occurring during the voyage’ so that ‘the ways and doings of so illustrious a community may not be lost to posterity’,9 the shipboard periodical also functions as an emigrant guidebook. ‘There are many on board who have had long and varied experiences of colonial life, habits and customs’, writes the Somersetshire Gazette, and it is hoped that their contributions outlining their ‘former trials’ and ‘difficulties overcome’ may be ‘a means of forewarning, and therefore forearming novices’.10

In Imperial Boredom (2018), Jeffrey Auerbach writes that ‘as ships grew in size and safety, navigation improved, and the routes to India and Australia became more frequently traversed during the first half of the nineteenth century, ocean travel became normalized’.11 As one writer for the Eclectic Review commented in 1865, whereas travelling around the world ‘fifty years ago would have made our fortune’, ‘everybody travels now, everyone sees everything and goes everywhere’.12 Tracing a change across the centuries in how voyages were experienced, Auerbach concludes that ‘[i]f a seventeenth-century voyage to the East was a perilous journey into the unknown, by the mid-nineteenth century it had become a cheerless interlude’.13 Comments on the monotony of the voyage are rife in passenger diaries and in shipboard newspapers. One disgruntled emigrant, Alexander Mackay, commented that: ‘Happy is he who, under such circumstances, has a resource against ennui in his own reflections.’14 While boredom and monotony can be traced across the imperial archive, appearing as it does in countless diaries, letters, and journals, shipboard newspapers demonstrate that this boredom can also be a site of literary productivity. The Sobraon Occasional, for example, announces that it ‘wishes to encourage the fine arts of sea-life – arts of killing time, of grumbling, of chaffing’.15

As this chapter shows, the ship and its journey is a site of more complicated emotions and connections than just those of bringing people from one point to another across empire. Ships and the periodicals that were produced to and from the southern hemisphere are shaped by overlapping geographies of imperial desire: ‘home’ is a confused and ambiguous space in these periodicals, and, as they track the voyage across the waters on their pages, the journey becomes a space of both imagined and real connections. In demonstrating how shipboard periodicals ‘figuratively map the real-and-imagined spaces of their worlds, both within the text and with reference to a space outside of the text’, this chapter will show how colonial anxieties and aspirations shaped the spatial logic of shipboard periodicals.16 In particular, it draws upon specific examples of travelogues, tales, and shipboard theatre to show that while representations of space within each of these genres is marked by an ‘anticipatory’ moment, it is an anticipation not so much of a sense of ‘home’ as it is for a sense of what forms encounters with Indigenous peoples will take.

Ships on the emigrant run

The Sobraon, the Somersetshire, and the True Briton were regulars on the Australia run, but of the three, only the Sobraon was purpose-built as an emigrant ship. It served the Australia run for twenty-five years, between 1866 and 1891. Designed to carry only ninety first-class passengers and forty second-class passengers, and built to complete the journey in as little as seventy-five days, the Sobraon signalled to all prospective travellers that she served a particular clientele. This chapter examines shipboard periodicals from three of the voyages made by the Sobraon: Our Voyage: Extracts from the Sobraon Gossip (1875), the Sobraon Occasional (1875), and the Sobraon Mercury (1877). While Our Voyage was produced as a manuscript periodical on board the ship en route from Melbourne to London, the copy that exists today is a miscellany of the original issues that was reprinted in London.17 The Occasional was printed on board the ship from London to Melbourne, and the Mercury was printed on board the ship from Melbourne to London. Of all three of the ships discussed here, the Sobraon was the one that enjoyed the most continuity between voyages: for twenty-four years, from 1867 until 1891, the ship sailed under Captain James Elmslie, whose reputation for generosity and conviviality was an attractive draw for many travellers.18 He was fondly remembered as a ‘genial commander’ and for the ‘great care he always took in looking after the comfort of his passengers’,19 while Our Voyage includes a note of ‘gratitude’ to Elmslie at the end of the voyage for ‘his generous and considerate kindness on several occasions’.20

Unlike the Sobraon, which was built as a luxury emigrant ship, the Somersetshire’s maiden voyage carried convicts to Hobart Town as early as 1814 and then again in the 1840s. However, from the 1860s onwards, the ship started making regular voyages between London and Melbourne.21 This chapter examines the Somersetshire Argus (1868), the Somersetshire Sea Pie (1870), and the Somersetshire Gazette (1872). Both the Argus and the Sea Pie were produced on the journey coming back to London, where they were printed, and the Gazette was written on the outward journey and printed at Melbourne.22

Of the three ships, the least amount of information is available on the True Briton. The two newspapers that were produced on board the ship are the manuscript shipboard periodical Open Sea (1868), which was made during the journey to Melbourne, and True Briton Observer (1870), which was printed when it arrived in Melbourne from Plymouth.23

At first glance, this brief overview of the ships, their periodicals, and their routes suggests a focus on only two strands in a rich interconnected network of travel and trade across the southern hemisphere that is already in place by, but consolidates itself during, the nineteenth century: that between Plymouth or London and Melbourne. I would argue, however, that this shows that settler colonial migration did not simply produce a mono-directional flow from Britain to the Antipodes: it also set into play a multitude of other journeys which criss-crossed the oceans in the southern hemisphere. Some of these were return journeys for emigrants who were either going back to visit their friends and family in England or were leaving the colonies. Even journeys to the Antipodes contained not just first-time emigrants but settlers, too. The Sobraon Occasional remarks that among its passengers are:

Australians returning with their families from pleasure or business trips to Europe; young folks from the old country going out to the colonies either as visitors or settlers; pale invalids seeking in the healthy sea breeze, and under the clear skies of Australia, the health and spirits they had lost by over-work or exposure to our own fickle climate.24

Another periodical points to the plurality of nationalities on board the ship: ‘Of course “Britishers” were in the majority; but besides them were Greeks, Americans, Nova Scotians, Poles, Italians, Germans, and a few Asiatics; almost all languages and sects, mingling in sweet disharmony.’25 We might reconsider, then, the notion of a singular ‘voyage out’: on the same voyage, for some, the outward route to Australia was a familiar return to home, while for others it was leaving home behind.

This entanglement of connections is further exemplified when we take into account the materiality of the ships themselves. As Nilanjana Deb argues, ships are more than the sum total of the journeys they take: attending to the materials of which they are comprised, the cargo that they carry, and the labour required to make them and that they transport are often just as important in untangling the colonial connections they embody.26 Despite their ‘centrality’ to ‘“global” history’, ‘ships as arenas in their own right have often remained beyond the global historian’s gaze’.27 In the nineteenth-century cultural imagination, however, they were an embodiment of an ‘imperial maritime rhetoric’ which symbolised power, where the ship’s ‘alleged capacity to overawe and intimidate indigenous coastal peoples was very much part of that rhetoric’.28 The three ships under discussion here are also the product of various kinds of colonial connections. Despite being purpose-built for the Australia run as a luxury emigrant ship, for example, the Sobraon takes its name from the first Sikh-Anglo war, specifically the Battle of Sobraon (1846), in which the East India Company defeated the Sikh Khalsa Army. The True Briton was a Blackwall frigate, a type of trading sail ship built at Blackwall for the purposes of trading with India following the collapse of the East India Company’s charter in 1833, when the market for trade in India opened up. Many frigates were built from and carried teak from Mawlamyine in Burma, as well as carrying cargo from country to country through the southern hemisphere. After the Suez Canal opened, in 1869, which made it easier for other ships to travel to and from India, Blackwall frigates were used in the wool trade between Britain and Australia. Both the Somersetshire and True Briton were made by the shipbuilders Money Wigram & Sons, a firm with key colonial interests in shipbuilding for trade with Australia. Focusing on the ships themselves as objects which are materially implicated in the processes of colonialism, rather than mere carriers of people across the oceans, brings to the surface the ways in which the dyadic relationship between metropole and colony is inflected – and even structured by – lateral south–south connections.

Shipboard periodicals and maritime literary culture

Examining shipboard periodicals that were produced on different voyages made by the same ship highlights that, as a genre, shipboard periodicals are not discrete entities. Although each run was limited by the duration of the voyage, the travellers often signalled that they were aware that the practice of producing shipboard periodicals was a commonplace one. For example, the Somersetshire Gazette writes that now that the ‘good ship’ has ‘once more started on her long voyage from the shores of merrie England to the Antipodes’, the passengers who by now ‘have so far recovered from the effects of a closer acquaintance with old Neptune’s domain than they have been accustomed to’ might ‘wish at least to emulate their predecessors, and keep up good old customs’:

On the last outward-bound passage of this vessel a paper was started, and published regularly every seventh day … We, the editors of the Somersetshire Gazette … shall endeavour to follow the example of prior journalists, and … hope to prove that the present numerous and mixed assemblage are in nowise behind their predecessors.29

The passengers on the Somersetshire were clearly aware that they were travelling on a ship on which former travellers had produced periodicals before – the Somersetshire Sea Pie and the Somersetshire Argus – and were keen to continue this sea-based tradition. While the periodicals produced on the Sobraon do not make such an overt acknowledgement of previous periodicals, there are close parallels between them. For example, the collected editions of the Sobraon Mercury and Sobraon Occasional both start with a ‘List of Officers, Crew, and Passengers’, and each individual issue of both periodicals contains an update on ‘Notes on the Voyage’. Our Voyage also starts with a note on the ship, containing information such as the ship’s dimensions, which shipping company built it, and what type of ship it is. Such close similarity in formal composition suggests that passengers on each voyage were aware that they were continuing a tradition started on previous voyages. The ‘imagined community’ thus stretches across maritime space and time to connect each voyage, such that the ship becomes a vessel that transports people and has an identity of its own.

In addition to referencing the periodicals made on the Somersetshire’s previous voyages, the Somersetshire Gazette’s nod to ‘prior journalists’ could also refer to the wider culture of producing shipboard periodicals. Indeed, it is not the only periodical to acknowledge this wider culture. The Dover Castle, for example, argues that its passengers ‘will not look upon our attempt at the establishment of a weekly paper as one without precedent, but will remember the success nearly always attending such a step’, and points to the example of SS Great Britain where ‘lately, a printing press was kept and a very neat and useful paper issued weekly’, which was ‘liberally distributed at a nominal charge to all her passengers’ upon the ‘termination of the voyage’.30 Thus, passengers on the voyage between Britain and Australia were well aware that they were participating in a wider maritime culture when they produced their periodicals. In both the Dover Castle and the Somersetshire Gazette, there is a clear sense of pleasure that they are following a specifically maritime literary tradition. However, as Philip Steinberg argues, ‘ocean-space typically is represented as a “special” space that lacks the paradigmatic attributes of “regular” space’; in particular, the ocean is constructed as ‘empty’ space.31 Steinberg’s argument helps frame the genre of shipboard periodicals in two important ways: first, it helps us to understand the ways in which cultural production continues to happen at sea (and in this sense, the sea is ‘regular’ space); second, it allows us to understand the complexity of the ways in which shipboard periodicals imagined themselves as part of maritime culture: one that is not just produced ‘out there’ on the ‘empty spaces’ of the ocean, but is part of more complicated circuits of exchange.

As mentioned previously, shipboard periodicals self-consciously drew upon a familiar vocabulary of home, villages, and towns to describe the space of the ship; fair copies were often printed at the port of arrival as souvenirs of the voyage. A skit entitled ‘Newspaper Boys’ from the True Briton engages in a virtual conversation with land-based periodicals:

Do you know why the Newspaper Boy is the happiest of mortals? No! Then I will tell you! He can always get the ‘Latest News’ from all the papers, and by means of the ‘Telegraph’ he can ‘Despatch’ the ‘Daily News’ to his friends … he can shelter himself under ‘Temple Bar,’ but generally prefers the neighbourhood of ‘Belgravia’ to that of ‘Cornhill.’ He always goes with the ‘Times,’ and enlists under any ‘Standard’ that promises him the greatest advantage … he takes in ‘Punch’ ‘Once a Week,’ and is happy ‘All the Year Round’.32

In addition to drawing on a land-based spatial imagination, excerpts from shipboard periodicals also circulated in land-based periodicals, such as in the Eclectic Review and Chambers’s Journal. In 1867, for example, an article appeared in the Eclectic Review, bringing to the attention of its ‘land-loving readers’ the ‘establishment of a weekly newspaper’ as ‘one of the new phases of ship-board life in large ocean steamers’.33 The Somersetshire Sea Pie writes that ‘[s]hip newspapers have now become such a recognised institution, that … it is unnecessary to do more on this occasion than simply to announce the fact of the publication of the present one’.34 In the same year, an article in Chambers’s Journal wrote that while many of its ‘stay-at-home’ readers may not have heard of them, in actual fact, ‘in not a few of our large, long-voyaging clipper-ships, it is customary … to publish a weekly newspaper’.35

In drawing out the popularity of shipboard newspapers for its land-based readers, the Eclectic Review and Chambers’s Journal both suggest a dichotomy between the literature produced and read at sea and that produced and read on land. Yet the practice of producing shipboard periodicals did not just happen in the supposedly contained spaces of the oceans and seas. The production and circulation of shipboard newspapers dismantled, rather than upheld, a dichotomy between land- and sea-based reading practices. This raises the question of how literature that is produced at sea is embedded in the histories of racial and gender inequalities engendered by settler colonialism. How might we read shipboard periodicals not as a document of a journey but, like the ships on which they were produced, as deeply implicated in colonial structures of dispossession?

Racial encounters in shipboard periodicals

Much attention has been paid to the role that poetry has played in settler colonial formations of ‘home’. Jason Rudy argues that one of the reasons for the spread of poetry through the colonies is that ‘poems adapted more quickly to colonial spaces, allowing for more local forms of expression’, and that they could ‘circulate with ease through Britain’s colonies, spaces that at first were not equipped to publish longer works’.36 As Rudy rightly argues, shipboard poetry produced on the voyage out was ‘anticipatory’: it looked forward to ‘home’ in the colonies.37 Poetry, however, was not the only genre that circulated in these periodicals: it shared the pages of the shipboard periodical with plays, short fiction, and descriptive accounts of the places through which the ship was moving.38 These cultural outputs were more than a means of just relieving ‘imperial boredom’: shipboard theatre, as Aaron Jaffer has noted in another context, often played a pivotal and ‘symbolic’ role in articulating political sensibilities and national identities, and the same can be said of the short fiction and travel writing that appeared in shipboard periodicals.39

As the ship travelled through the waters, each weekly instalment of many, if not all, of its periodicals offered a daily record of latitude and longitude to allow interested passengers to keep track of the ship’s journey. Narrative description, where the journey allowed something of interest, was another way in which the passengers engaged with the spaces through which they travelled. One particularly noteworthy account is in the Sobraon Mercury, when the ship stopped at St Helena:

Early accounts of the island all describe it as being covered with vegetation, as having in many places dense forests of ebony and other trees. It is generally believed that the destruction of these forests was chiefly caused by goats, which were introduced by the first Portuguese settlers in 1513. This is much regretted by botanists, for the indigenous flora of the island was one of the most singular in the whole world. Since the island has been denuded of its forests the soil which must have covered the rocks has been blown and washed away, for now most of the hills are quite bare.40

Here, the description of the present land as being ‘denuded’, ‘washed away, and ‘bare’ is contrasted with an earlier, precolonial moment when the island was ‘covered with vegetation’ and ‘dense forests of ebony and other trees’. A sense of loss that Indigenous plants have been wiped out is indicated through the botanists’ ‘regret’, but rather than also seeing the act of the Sobraon stopping over at St Helena as part of colonisation in the present moment, the passage pushes the moment of colonisation back to the sixteenth century and the ‘early accounts’ of the Portuguese.41 Furthermore, there is no recognition of the fact that British colonisation of Australia, to where their ship was heading, was having precisely the same effects on the Indigenous people and environment. The passengers of the Sobraon Mercury recognise the loss that settler colonialism entails, but they fail to recognise themselves as the cause of that loss.

As a short story called ‘A Night of Terror’ in the Sobraon Occasional shows, the encounter between settlers and Indigenous peoples was often imagined as violent.42 The story follows Alice, a girl in ‘one of the country districts of Tasmania’, and her younger brother, Abel, who live with their father in an ‘uncouth dwelling, built of wooden slabs with a shingle roof’. At the start of the story, Alice and Abel are sat ‘in the rude verandah in front of their house’: the roughness of their house indicates both the poverty of the small family but also the relative newness of the settlement. A sense of foreboding lies over both of them – they are the only two alone in the settlement, with their father having ‘gone away’ and ‘Morris and his wife’ the ‘only people but ourselves on the place to-night’. Alice asks uneasily what advice their neighbour M’Coy had given ‘about blacks when he came over on Monday?’. Abel is ‘not quite sure’ but remembers that it is ‘[s]omething about “mischief and black devils, that was all”’. Alice moves through her chores as night sets, but she cannot rid herself of the ‘vague foreboding of impending danger’, or ‘shake off an unwonted feeling of depression and uneasiness’.

The first sign of supposed danger is ‘a low prolonged howl, not a dog’s moan, or the wail of the wind’: ‘only human beings could produce that strange peculiar note’, but to Abel and Alice’s ears ‘there was something unearthly’ about it too. The wail is followed by a ‘succession of sharp hard taps on the window-pane at the back, resembling the sound of sticks or stones rattling against it’. Reminded of ‘all the tales of horror one has heard of mutilation and slaughter’, Alice

snatched up the gun, with the powder and shot, from the mantel-piece, and bidding Abel, in low-measured tones, get the pistol from her father’s room, that they might each fire alternately from the back-window, she proceeded to load, with much nerve and self-control. Parley was useless; any attempt at it would have lost them irretrievably.

Alice fires through the ‘volley of spears [that] came rattling on, smashing the panes, falling into the room, and tearing the blinds to ribands’. During the ‘desperate encounter’, ‘Alice and her brother loaded and fired in turn, amid the howls and fierce imprecations of the blacks, who had now come to close quarters’. Eventually wounded, Alice takes up Abel, who has cut his hand, and ‘clasped him to her breast, determined to defend him with her last gasp’: such valiance, however, is not required in the end, as a ‘stranger’ chases off the attack and saves them both. Ending in a moralistic tone, the narrator highlights to readers that ‘it certainly behoves all pioneers to take warning by her terrible adventure, and spare their wives and daughters such experiences as cannot fail to darken their future lives’.

Unlike in the account of St Helena, here the colonial violence is foregrounded, rather than being pushed to an earlier historical moment. Domesticity is fragile and made secure not through the domestic labour of settler colonial women, but through their ability to take up arms and participate in violence against Indigenous people. Within the periodical press, the ‘question of empire’ was brought together with the ‘woman question’ to debate and frame the role that women might or should play in Britain and the colonies.43 As the voyage out was often seen as a preparatory stage for life in the colonies, the journey was an apt space for reimagining the role that women might play in them. The gender imbalance between Australia and England meant that women were often seen as a civilising influence. Interestingly, however, while Alice ‘shores up domestic norms’ by protecting her home, she does so through an ‘erosion of gender norms’, as she represents a double inversion of stereotypical gender roles: not only does she protect her brother but she also participates in the violence that usually marked boys’ adventure fiction.44

In the first two issues of the Somersetshire Gazette, a short play was published with the title The Row, the Wreck, and the Reconciliation.45 The dramatis personae lists Julius Caesar Hannibal Smith who has ‘just … lost some twenty thousand pounds’, his daughter Zerlina, her lover and Smith’s clerk, Lorenzo Jones, and an old and rich merchant, Alonzo de Robinson, who Julius has decided to marry Zerlina off to because he is ‘only sixty … and such a swell’. The plot is fairly predictable: upon hearing that Lorenzo and Zerlina are in love, Julius orders that she shall marry Alonzo. Zerlina and Lorenzo both escape on a ship that is bound for China, a ship on which Alonzo also happens to be travelling out on for business. The ship is shipwrecked, and the company find themselves on a strange ‘desert island’. Here, they are met by the ‘King of the Cannibal Islands’, who orders his troupe of followers to ‘[s]eize the barbarians’ and:

skin them carefully:

The girl is young and tender, her we’ll roast –

The man is tougher, cut him up in bits

And make of him a currie, hash, or stew.

His attention is diverted, however, when he catches sight of one of Zerlina’s ‘thirteen bonnet boxes’, and his entire demeanour is transformed:

A bonnet, as I live. How very chaste!

I’ll try it on. Let’s see, which is the front?

There! Does it suit me?

Lorenzo offers him the bonnet as a gift, and the King ‘to express my sense of gratitude’ promises: ‘We will not eat you – that is – not to-day.’ Out of nowhere, Julius appears: he has also been shipwrecked and had been cast adrift until he arrived at the island. He comes bearing good news: Lorenzo, it turns out, is in fact a ‘nobleman of high degree’ and, as a result, he blesses the wedding between Lorenzo and Zerlina.

The desert island they find themselves on is surrounded by ‘[p]alm trees, sago, canoes, yams, tomahawks, chutnee, etc’. Rather than pointing to any one specific region of the world, the island is a colonial nowhere, abstracted from any real sense of place to stand in for any colony at all. In this, the play is marked by a very different sense of place to either that in the account of St Helena or in ‘A Night of Terror’. Within its colonial nowhere, women are seen to have a civilising influence. On the one hand, Zerlina is a caricature of a female figure, who has brought with her ‘thirteen boxes and five trunks’ and yet still considers herself to have come aboard with ‘nothing’ to wear. Yet it is her bonnet box that saves the day, and the play therefore emphasises the civilising influence of women in the colonies – something that settler colonial narratives frequently stressed as well.46

Like so many of the short stories and poems that were written for shipboard periodicals, the play relies on familiar narrative conventions for its comedy and plot. When Julius is asked at the end of the play how it can possibly be that Lorenzo is a noble gentleman, he airily replies: ‘The usual thing – / A wicked uncle and a treacherous nurse, Changeling at birth, forged wills, a strawberry mark / Upon the arm, and all the rest of it.’ Rather than incorporating them into a narrative flow, Julius merely lists these familiar genre markers by way of an explanation; it is the genre, rather than content, that is stressed here. Much of the comedic effect of the play derives from the breaking of the fourth wall, as characters openly exploit the limited resources on board the ship, such as when Lorenzo vows to ‘do my all to make him [Alonzo] miserable; Strange substances he’ll find between his sheets, / Crumbs, nutshells, boot-jacks, hair-brushes, etcetera’. Stage directions in the play, such as setting the scene ‘somewhere near the main brace’, and the instruction to ‘revive’ a fainting Zerlina with ‘the contents of the inkstand’ (which stands in for a bottle of smelling salts), indicate that the play was written and performed on board the ship by its passengers. When the captain announces ‘we’ve sprung a leak / And run upon a rock’, he jokingly reassures his ship, ‘but what of that / There’s lots of time for dinner ‘ere we sink’. Lorenzo’s response, similarly, is entirely at odds with the gravity of the situation: ‘How very awkward, I object to this; / My feet will get so very damp.’ The slapstick comedy of the play, which is produced by a continual undercutting of the audience’s expectations, hides a nascent anxiety about staging a shipwreck on board a floating ship.

The account of St Helena, ‘A Night of Terror’, and The Row, the Wreck, and the Reconciliation are all examples of what Renaud Morieux has called ‘vernacular … experiences of the sea’: they are representations of the ways in which everyday colonisers experienced the sea and voyage.47 This vernacular experience, however, is embedded within a colonial ideology. As Patrick Brantlinger has argued, it was only ‘as white settlement expanded and met with increasing Aboriginal resistance’ that the discourse of cannibalism was invoked to justify settler violence.48 If Zerlina’s feminine charm, embodied by her bonnet, is portrayed as the civilising influence in the shipboard play, ‘A Night of Terror’ imagines a very different role for women in the colonies, where the domestic space is protected by a woman through violence. Humour is used to contain the double threat of shipwreck and being devoured by cannibalism in the play, as it is used elsewhere to contain the threat of ‘going native’: the Sobraon Mercury notes the ‘great merriment [which was] caused by the dressing up of Master G. Lindley and Miss May Elmslie in native costume’.49

Most studies of shipboard newspapers have focused on the ways in which their production contributed to the formation of a sense of place and a community at sea, with lines often drawn distinctly between who was included in this community and who was not.50 Joanna de Schmidt, for example, argues that ‘a ship’s newspaper was simultaneously a space for social exchange and a means of establishing social boundaries at sea in an age of increasing global shipboard travel’.51 Attending lectures, putting on plays, and reading out short stories were certainly an important part of this ‘social exchange’. Yet, as these examples show, shipboard sociability was deeply implicated in reproducing settler racisms and discourses of power. The ‘worlds’ that are imagined in these shipboard periodicals are thus marked by considerations of the forms that racial encounters can take: the black body is variously rendered invisible, violent, and an object of mockery on the periodical’s pages. Similarly, colonial spaces take a range of spatial representations, from the supposedly violent outback of Tasmania to an imaginary colonial nowhere, but all of these ‘worlds’ nonetheless operate within racialised discourses of power.

Shipboard periodicals and the Global South

‘Water,’ argues Clare Anderson, ‘is not just an empty space, but the canvas on which history is enacted.’52 Shipboard periodicals are an important, albeit small, part of this history: being produced at sea does not exempt them from being an integral part of the cultural outputs of settler emigration. Indeed, uncovering the porous nature of their mobility, as they move between water and shore, demonstrates the ways in which they are framed by, and transport, colonial hierarchies of race. The maritime culture that shipboard periodicals are a part of is thus not separate from land – the periodicals’ content and circulation is shaped by the real and imagined spaces that they move through.

Drawing attention to the problematic ways in which different spatial imaginaries of land and sea, and of ship and colony, are synchronic with, and map on to, each other through the pages of the shipboard periodical is part of an ‘intentionally complex strategy of speaking back’ that characterises the methodological imperative of both ‘southern theory’ and criticism from the Global South.53 ‘No longer characterised solely or necessarily by geographic location’,54 the Global South is instead an ‘ideological concept highlighting the economic, political and epistemic dependency and unequal relations in the global world order, from a subaltern perspective’ and a ‘tool aimed at problematizing the hegemonic world order’.55 If it is a location at all, then it is a ‘location where new visions of the future are emerging and where the global political and decolonial society is at work’.56 Michelle Tusan has already written of the difficulties of ‘reading British colonial periodicals against the grain’, ‘given the inaccessibility of source material and the difficulty of uncovering the views of indigenous peoples due to the mediating influence of print and the colonial archive’.57 As this chapter has shown, however, reading against the grain allows us to hold shipboard periodicals to account as part of the ongoing legacy of the imperial order, rather than to see them straightforwardly as a celebration of sociability or community formation at sea. While it is true that the ‘very act of critique, or more accurately what can seem like acts of repetitive critique’ can ‘sometimes keep European geographies and histories centre-stage’, it is also true that sometimes it is precisely this ‘repetitive act of critique’ that is needed.58 Such critique encourages us to look for the ways in which the ship, and the cultural forms it transports, are implicated in discourses of racialised power.


1 For an example of the former, see ‘Emigrant Shipboard Newspapers: Provisional Settlement at Sea’, in Fariha Shaikh, Nineteenth-Century Settler Emigration in British Literature and Art (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018), chapter 2, pp. 63–94. On the term ‘blue humanities’, see John R. Gillis, ‘The Blue Humanities’, Humanities, 34:3 (2013), www.neh.gov/humanities/2013/mayjune/feature/the-blue-humanities (accessed 25 January 2020).
2 Kevin Murphy and Sally O’Driscoll, Studies in Ephemera: Text and Image in Eighteenth-Century Print (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2013), http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/bham/detail.action?docID=1117172 (accessed 25 January 2020).
3 Meg Samuelson and Charne Lavery, ‘The Oceanic South’, English Language Notes, 57:1 (2019), 37.
4 Roland Wenzlhuemer, ‘The Ship, the Media, and the World: Conceptualizing Connections in Global History’, Journal of Global History, 11:2 (2016), 164, https://doi.org/10.1017/S1740022816000048 (accessed 25 January 2020).
5 David Armitage, Alison Bashford, and Sujit Sivasundaram, ‘Introduction: Writing World Oceanic Histories’, in David Armitage, Alison Bashford, and Sujit Sivasundaram (eds), Oceanic Histories (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), p. 9.
6 It is also worth bearing in mind that the dispersal of the periodical form into the countries of the colonial south often superseded older forms of communication. See, e.g., Sally Young, Paper Emperors: The Rise of Australia’s Newspaper Empires (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2019); Isabel Hofmeyr, Gandhi’s Printing Press: Experiments in Slow Reading (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013); J. Don Vann and Rosemary VanArsdel (eds), Periodicals of Queen Victoria’s Empire: An Exploration (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996); and Chandrika Kaul, Reporting the Raj: The British Press and India, c. 1880–1922 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003).
7 Jude Piesse, British Settler Emigration in Print, 1832–1877 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), p. 1.
8 John G. Horsey, A Voyage from Australia to England: An Interesting Account of Incidents Occuring on Board the Blackwall Liner ‘Dover Castle’ Published on Board That Ship as a Weekly Newspaper under the Title of the ‘Dover Castle News’ (London: Steam Press, 1867), p. 20.
9 The Sobraon Mercury: An Occasional Journal Published at Sea during the Voyage of the Ship ‘Sobraon’ from Melbourne to London (Published at Sea, 1877), p. 9.
10 The Somersetshire Gazette: A Ship Newspaper Issued on Board the S. S. ‘Somersetshire’, on Her Passage from Plymouth to Melbourne (Melbourne: Sands & McDougall, 1872), p. 1.
11 Jeffrey Auerbach, Imperial Boredom: Monotony and the British Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), p. 12.
12 ‘The Newspaper on Board an Ocean Steamer’, Eclectic Review (8 January 1865), p. 40.
13 Auerbach, Imperial Boredom, pp. 12–13.
14 Alexander Mackay, ‘An Emigrant Afloat’, Household Words (31 August 1850), p. 537.
15 The Sobraon Occasional: Published on Board the ‘Sobraon’ during Her Outward Voyage to Melbourne, from October 7th to December 26th (1875), n.p.
16 Robert T. Tally, Jr, The Routledge Handbook of Literature and Space (London: Taylor & Francis, 2017), p. 3.
17 The introduction to the periodical acknowledges ‘Mrs Price and Mr Powell, whose services as “printing presses” were invaluable’ (p. vi).
18 After the ship stopped sailing the seas, it was used as a reformatory school in Sydney Harbour.
19 ‘Death of Captain Elmslie’, Evening News (15 July 1908), p. 5; ‘The Late Captain Elmslie: A Sailor’s Appreciation’, Daily Telegraph (27 August 1908), p. 4.
20 Our Voyage: Extracts from the Sobraon Gossip: A Weekly Newspaper Published on Board the Sobraon during the Passage from Melbourne to London, Feby. 13th to June 12th, 1875 (London: Printed by T. Pettitt, 1875), p. 60. A newspaper called the Homeward Bound was also published in 1882 on the Sobraon.
21 Ian Hawkins Nicholson, Log of Logs: A Catalogue of Logs, Journals, Shipboard Diaries, Letters, and All Forms of Voyage Narratives, 1788 to 1988, for Australia and New Zealand and Surrounding Oceans (Nambour: The Author jointly with the Australian Association for Maritime History, 1990), p. 252.
22 Like the Sobraon, the Somersetshire attracted travellers with a literary sensibility; other newspapers such as the Somersetshire News (1869) and the Somersetshire Times (1878) were also produced on other voyages.
23 On the Open Sea, see Shaikh, Nineteenth-Century Settler Emigration, pp. 63–94.
24 Sobraon Occasional, p. 4.
25 ‘The Newspaper on Board an Ocean Steamer’, p. 39.
26 Nilanjana Deb, ‘(Re)moving Bodies: People, Ships and Other Commodities in the Coolie Trade from Calcutta’, in Supriya Chaudhuri, Josephine McDonagh, Brian Murray, and Rajeswari Sunder Rajan (eds), Commodities and Culture in the Colonial World (London: Routledge, 2018), pp. 115–28.
27 Martin Dusinberre and Roland Wenzlhuemer, ‘Editorial – Being in Transit: Ships and Global Incompatibilities’, Journal of Global History, 11:2 (2016), 155–6.
28 John M. Mackenzie, ‘Lakes, Rivers and Oceans: Technology, Ethnicity and the Shipping of Empire in the Late Nineteenth Century’, in David Killingray, Margarette Lincoln, and Nigel Rigby (eds), Maritime Empires: British Imperial Maritime Trade in the Nineteenth Century (Woodbridge: Boydell in association with National Maritime Museum, 2004), pp. 117–18.
29 Somersetshire Gazette, p. 1.
30 Dover Castle, p. 1.
31 Philip E. Steinberg, The Social Construction of the Ocean (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 34.
32 The True Briton Observer: A Newspaper Published on Board the Ship, ‘True Briton’, on Her Passage from Plymouth to Melbourne, Victoria (Melbourne: R. M. Abbott, 1871), p. 9.
33 ‘The Newspaper on Board an Ocean Steamer’, p. 39.
34 The ‘Somersetshire’ Sea Pie. A Weekly Newspaper Written on Board the S. S. Somersetshire … 28th April to 9th July, 1870, ed. by J. William Sewell (London: J. Tuck & Co, 1870), p. 2.
35 ‘The Press at Sea’, Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Arts (3 August 1867), p. 488.
36 Jason Rudy, Imagined Homelands: British Poetry in the Colonies (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), p. 7. For a discussion of poetry circulating in periodical elsewhere in the southern hemisphere, see Lara Atkin, ‘The South African “Children of the Mist”: The Bushman, the Highlander and the Making of Colonial Identities in Thomas Pringle’s South African Poetry (1825–1834)’, The Yearbook of English Studies, 48 (2018), 199–215. For a discussion of how the short story developed in British and Australian periodicals, see Graham Law, ‘Savouring of the Australian Soil? On the Sources and Affiliations of Colonial Newspaper Fiction’, Victorian Periodicals Review, 37:4 (2004), 75–97.
37 Rudy, Imagined Homelands, p. 38.
38 Indeed, the shipboard periodical was a veritable miscellany of advertisements, letters to editors, lost and found notices, and requests for paper and contributions, as well as poetry, short fiction, and plays. I have chosen to focus on travelogue, theatre, and short fiction as these have received the least attention in current scholarship on the cultural work of shipboard periodicals.
39 Aaron Jaffer, Lascars and Indian Ocean Seafaring, 1780–1860: Shipboard Life, Unrest and Mutiny (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2015), p. 82.
40 Sobraon Mercury, p. 36. The correct year of Portuguese arrival is in fact 1502.
41 Trevor Boult, St Helena: A Maritime History (Stroud: Amberley, 2016).
42 Sobraon Occasional, pp. 38–41.
43 Hilary Fraser, Stephanie Green, and Judith Johnston, Gender and the Victorian Periodical (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 121.
44 Janet C. Myers, Antipodal England: Emigration and Portable Domesticity in the Victorian Imagination (New York: State University of New York Press, 2009), pp. 45, 47.
45 Somersetshire Gazette, pp. 2–3, 6.
46 Myers, Antipodal England; Rita S. Kranidis, The Victorian Spinster and Colonial Emigration: Contested Subjects (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1999).
47 Renaud Morieux, Clare Anderson, Jonathan Lamb, David Armitage, Alison Bashford, and Sujit Suvasundaram, ‘Oceanic Histories: A Roundtable’, Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, 19:2 (2018), n.p., https://muse.jhu.edu/article/700167 (accessed 1 February 2020).
48 Patrick Brantlinger, Taming Cannibals: Victorians and Race (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011), p. 29. Brantlinger is drawing upon the work of Kay Schaffer, In the Wake of First Contact: The Eliza Fraser Stories (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).
49 ‘Abstract of a Lecture Delivered by Rev. G. Daniel, On the South Sea Islands and Islanders’, Sobraon Mercury, p. 27.
50 See, for example, Bill Bell, ‘Bound for Australia: Shipboard Reading in the Nineteenth Century’, Journal of Australian Studies, 25 (2001), 5–18.
51 Johanna de Schmidt, ‘“This Strange Little Floating World of Ours”: Shipboard Periodicals and Community-Building in the “Global” Nineteenth Century’, Journal of Global History, 11 (2016), 230.
52 Morieux et al., ‘Oceanic Histories’, n.p.
53 Mehita Iqani and Fernando Resende, Media and the Global South: Narrative Territorialities, Cross-Cultural Currents (London: Routledge, 2019).
54 Fermanis and Comyn, ‘Introduction’, Worlding the South, p. 1.
55 Walter D. Mignolo, ‘The Global South and World Dis/order’, Journal of Anthropological Research, 67 (2011), 166; Gesine Müller, Jorge J. Locane, and Benjamin Loy, ‘Introduction’, in Gesine Müller, Jorge J. Locane, and Benjamin Loy (eds), Re-Mapping World Literature: Writing, Book Markets and Epistemologies between Latin America and the Global South (Boston: De Gruyter, 2018), p. 3.
56 Caroline Levander and Walter Mignolo, ‘Introduction: The Global South and World Dis/Order’, The Global South, 5:1 (2011), 3.
57 Michelle Tusan, ‘Empire and the Periodical Press’, in Andrew King, Alexis Easley, and John Morton (eds), The Routledge Handbook to Nineteenth-Century British Periodicals and Newspapers (London: Routledge, 2016), p. 159.
58 Morieux et al., ‘Oceanic Histories’, n.p.
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Worlding the south

Nineteenth-century literary culture and the southern settler colonies


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